Music Review: Tori Amos' Abnormally Attracted to Sin

by Rick Rockwell

Tori Amos is searching for a new equilibrium.

The news: she hasn’t found it yet on her tenth solo studio release, Abnormally Attracted to Sin.

Some may remember Amos as one of the female singer-songwriters who ruled ‘90s alternative radio. But like her contemporaries Alanis Morissette and P.J. Harvey, Amos is finding the new millennium a bit tougher to navigate. Unlike Harvey’s recent success, Abnormally Attracted to Sin and the over-wrought concept album project American Doll Posse (2007) show how much Amos has lost her musical compass.

American Doll Posse was supposedly a thematic departure from Amos’ past and the singer noted she wanted a complete change of approach from that point forward. Now, after dumping her record label (the new record is distributed through Universal Republic Records but Amos remains independent of a full label contract) too, Amos seems to be looking for the comfort again of her past sound. Abnormally Attrtacted to Sin is the tepid result.

Surely, of the album’s 17 tracks (a deluxe online edition includes an extra “Oscar’s Theme,” which is actually one of the album’s better songs) Amos has penned a handful of winners, but nothing on the order of “Cornflake Girl” or “God” (both from 1994’s Under the Pink). The song “Police Me” is an interesting sonic reference to those times with its edgy guitar breaks and lyrical references to a “storming blackberry girl.” The album’s first single “Welcome to England” (Amos resides in England and holds both American and British citizenship) includes Amos’ idiosyncratic, staccato vocal style underpinned with Mac Aladdin’s razor-sharp guitar accents, but the song simply meanders, like a walk along the cliffs of Dover. The end result is pleasant, but a bit lightweight, despite its lyrical foundation about seduction. Or perhaps it really is just a small complaint about the British weather, as the lyrics use that as a conversational swing point (“…You better bring your own sun / sweet girl. / You gotta bring your own sun….”)

From the opening minor chords of “Give,” and Amos’ plaintive vocals, Abnormally Attracted to Sin sounds more like a harrowing voyage than a descent into decadence. Oddly, the arrangement of “Strong Black Vine” with its thick string arrangement and pounding drums lifts just a bit too much from Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir.” Amos’ attempts at a sexy growl in her delivery can’t save the song from its over-produced self-indulgence. Like the lead single, some songs (“Flavor” and “Fire to Your Plain”) just move lazily and seem like forgettable trifles. Others (“Ophelia”) are dour explorations of Amos’s black moods or the moods of her alter-egos.

However, sometimes that dourness finds just the right cathartic note. “Maybe California” is one of the album’s best tracks and its mix of moody melancholy works perfectly. There are other songs of note too. Disguised as a mother’s conversation with her son about girls, “Mary Jane” is a humorous ode to cannabis. “Not Dying Today” includes a nice musical hook set on a percolating beat. And “Starling” is a fine bit of British folk, especially with Amos’ use of Matt Chamberlain’s restrained snare drums dialed down underneath the main mix. (Amos self-produced the album, and her husband Mark Hawley was one of the two sound mixers on the project.) But there aren’t enough of these moments.

Although Abnormally Attracted to Sin is a sprawling statement of independence and another experiment with creating lyrical novelettes, ultimately it is all too much. Like some artists, Amos needs a producer who will help her select her best tracks and lock the rest away. Clocking in at more than an hour and 12 minutes (without the bonus track) and with only about a third of its songs up to Amos’ usual standard, the real sin here is Amos’ extravagance.

(The promotional photo of the cover for the new Tori Amos release is from the artist's myspace page, where Abnormally Attracted to Sin is streaming for a limited time. Amos begins her world tour on July 10 in Seattle, WA. To see the video for Amos' "Flavor," please check below.)

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